Pianist/keyboardist Jon Cowherd has been a regular member of the Brian Blade Fellowship through its four releases dating back to the group's self-titled debut in 1998 (Blue Note Records). He has recorded with Cassandra Wilson, Lizz Wright and Myron Walden (also of Fellowship) as well, but the Kentucky native has a background that extends to country (Rosanne Cash), folk rock (Marc Cohn), and punk (Iggy Pop). The latter contributionto be clearwas not Mr. Pop's typical outing as it employed brass and reeds, New Orleans influences and covers from Lil Hardin Armstrong and Antonio Carlos Jobim. As a leader, Gateway is only Cowherd's second recording, his Mercy (ArtistShare) having debuted in 2013 and with Bill Frisell, John Patitucci and Blade on board.
Gateway is the third installment of the second season for the vinyl-only Newvelle Records label. While Cowherd may not be the most recognizable name produced by the label, this album is among the most outstanding of their catalog to date. The seven-minute title track that opens Side A of Gateway is largely Cowherd's showcase until guitarist Steve Cardenas joins in. The interplay can't help but recall the piano/guitar dynamics of Lyle Mays and Pat Metheny though the sound is unique to these musicians. "Piano Improvisation #1" and its Side B counterparts, "Piano Improvisation #2 and #3" give Cowherd the rare extended opportunity to stand out in a way to which the Fellowship doesn't necessarily lend itself. "Wandering Heart" opens with the strong influence of classicism and later features a striking bass solo from multi-genre artist Tony Scherr.
Side B begins in decidedly funkier vein with "Warriors." Propelled by Blade's subtle but forceful direction, the piece includes invigorating solos from the drummer and Scherr. "A Beautiful Something" is a moderately paced group ballad that slowly gathers speed and retreats in waves. "Piano Improvisation #2" is a brief, but engaging, blues number that leads to the album's fusion entry, Braun's Bronco. "Piano Improvisation #3" reflectively closes Side B and again highlights Cowherd's affinity for classics, even while infusing the piece with a bit of avant-garde sensibility.
The nine compositions are Cowherd originals and a beautifully balance blend of lyricism, enthusiastic energy and just enough edginess. Cowherd is as talented a composer (a more minimal personal role with Fellowship), as he is a musician. Surrounded by a superb troupe, and with compositions designed to play to their strengths, Gateway is a gem. An aside is the added benefit of Newvelle's cover art. Collaborating with Tendance Flouea French photography collectivethe works featured on this season's releases are something of a gallery, suitable for framing.
Side A: Gateway; Piano Improvisation #1; Memorial Day; Wandering Heart. Side B: Warriors; A Beautiful Something; Piano Improvisation #2; Braun’s Bronco; Piano Improvisation #3.
Jon Cowherd: piano; Brian Blade: drums; Steve Cardenas: guitar; Tony Scherr: bass.
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